Hi everyone. I know I haven’t posted in what seems to be a lifetime, but Becky reached out to me and immediately grabbed my interest in this book. Just give this chapter an once over and I can guarantee that you will want to read the rest of the book.
Robbie Melton opened the boot of his car and took out a pair of Wellington boots. He’d been caught out wearing inadequate footwear when called to investigations in farmyards before. As he pulled them on, he saw the farmer hurrying towards him. ‘Frank Beaton? I’m DC Robbie Melton.’
‘Thanks for coming out, Officer.’ Tall and thin, the man was dressed in many-pocketed brown work trousers and an old faded jumper under a worn and weathered gilet. ‘Let me show you where the pigs were stolen from.’
‘How many did you say were taken?’ asked Robbie, looking around at the rather ramshackle farm buildings. The farmer and his small estate looked to be in the same condition — tired and overworked.
‘Six, and the rest of them were left wandering about the enclosure. I reckon they drove something pretty big at the fencing and just crashed through it.’ Frank Beaton rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead. ‘Funny, though: they tried to drag the damaged fencing back into place before they left. I can’t think why.’
‘Were you here when it happened, sir?’ asked Robbie.
‘No, it was our night for going to the Comrades.’ He must have noticed Robbie’s blank expression and added, ‘The Old Comrades is a Social Club in the town. I takes the wife out and we have a bit of supper there once a week. That night both my sons came too, for a darts match, so there was no one here.’
‘Meaning they knew the place would be empty?’
‘Seems that way. We’ve been going to the Comrades on a Friday night for years. It’s no secret.’
Robbie made a few notes in his book. ‘Were the pigs valuable, sir?’
‘Depends what you mean by valuable. They weren’t fancy breeds, just good wholesome stock. Four boars, one sow and one gilt.’
‘Female pig that hasn’t had any piglets yet.’ Frank smiled at Robbie. ‘City boy, are you?’
‘Not really, just not well up on pigs. Call me pig ignorant, if you like.’
Frank laughed. ‘I see. Well, I suppose they were worth around five hundred for the six of them. They were all ear tagged with our herd number.’
Robbie had a feeling DEFRA’s compulsory tags wouldn’t be of too much use. He was pretty sure that these pigs had not been stolen to be sold on
but to stock a freezer. ‘Has anything like this ever happened before, Mr Beaton?’
‘Never in all the years we’ve been here, and that’s quite a few, I can tell you. My kids were born here, and now they work alongside me.’ He frowned. ‘Leaves a bad taste in your mouth, this sort of thing.’
Robbie agreed. He tried to match the farmer’s stride as he headed for the pig enclosure. Unlike the rest of the place, this area was well looked after. The animals had a large pasture with several farrowing arcs and field shelters, and a smaller enclosure with a low barn-like structure as well. There were big water troughs and sectioned feed troughs, and some very happy pigs rooting and wallowing in the field.
‘Over here, look.’ Frank Beaton pointed to some hastily repaired fencing. ‘I reckon they drove it down, then turned around and backed a trailer in.’
On closer inspection, Robbie was inclined to agree. ‘A 4×4 or a Land Rover, with a small livestock trailer, I’d guess.’ He pulled out his phone and took a couple of close-ups of the tyre tracks. This kind of theft didn’t warrant forensics, but if he could get an identification of the vehicle used, it would help a lot.
Frank glowered at the damage. ‘I hope this isn’t the start of a spate of this kind of thing, Officer. I’m sure to some it’s just a few head of livestock, but we reared those pigs and we really try to do a good job with their welfare, sometimes to our own detriment. This kind of thieving is bloody unkind.’
‘I’m hoping this was a one-off, sir. I can see how you care for these pigs; they look really contented. But if anything else does happen, ring us immediately. Now you are on our radar, we’ll do our best to keep a look out, but to be honest . . .’
Frank finished off the sentence, ‘You’ve got bigger fish to fry.’
‘It’s the cutbacks and the size of our budget, sir, but as I say,’ Robbie handed the man his card, ‘ring me direct. I’ll be sure to get a car out to you.’ He felt for the man. This was no wealthy landowner or gentleman farmer. Frank Beaton was just a family man, a grafter who cared about his beasts. ‘Perhaps you’d ring me if you hear of this happening to anyone else in the area? Not everyone reports this sort of thing.’
Frank Beaton nodded. ‘And I’ll make sure the news gets around to the other small farmers in the area.’
Robbie changed back into his shoes and packed his boots away, wondering about the theft. Even the smallest livestock trailer would safely carry far more than six pigs. Why stop there? He didn’t think they had
been disturbed. Apparently the Beatons hadn’t got home until some time after the theft took place. So why just take six?
All the way back to the station he couldn’t shake off the idea that this figure was in some way significant.
DC Charlie Button had been to some odd shouts in his short time as a detective, but this one took the biscuit. The theft of oil in farming communities was nothing new. Even in the villages, domestic heating oil tanks were regularly being targeted. Because they are pretty unsightly, many homes off the mains gas grid tried to hide their tanks away from the house and out of sight. Perfect for thieves. Cases of oil theft were on the rise.
This was different though. This was red diesel.
On the edge of the yard at Dewsbury End Farm was a large oxide oil tank painted red. It was used to store the diesel for the tractors and other farm vehicles. Charlie knew the law regarding this low-tax oil. It was called “red” because of the dye put in it to prevent it being used in road- going vehicles.
‘Flippin’ heck!’ Charlie stood with his hands on his hips and surveyed the mess. ‘What on earth happened here?’
Len Dewsbury shook his head. ‘Bloody idiots!’ He looked down. ‘And careful where you walk. My lads have done their best to clean it up but get it on your shoes and you’ll stink for days.’
Charlie surveyed the large pool of sludge surrounding the base of the tank.
‘When we saw what had happened, we dug a trench to stop the spill spreading into the water course.’ The farmer gestured towards a deep ditch that ran alongside the entrance to the yard. ‘Then we covered what was on the concrete in sand and soil to try to absorb it. We need to leave it overnight, then hopefully we can sweep it up.’
‘What do you think happened?’ asked Charlie.
‘A bungled attempt to steal diesel. We found a discarded hose, so they must have syphoned a fair bit off into cans, then the silly sods couldn’t stop the flow. If my son hadn’t heard something and come out here, the whole bloody tank would have drained out. This storage tank holds five hundred gallons when it’s full. Can you imagine the damage that would have done?’ Len Dewsbury shook his head and let out an exasperated sigh. ‘Whoever did this was no pro, just an incompetent prat.’
Charlie nodded. ‘Have you got that hose, sir?’
‘It’s over by the gate, but if you’re thinking of saliva or prints, it was left floating in the oil, so you’ll get nothing from that, Detective.’
Charlie was starting to feel nauseous from the smell of diesel and was rather glad that he wouldn’t have to bag the hose and take it with him. He took down as many details as he could, then beat a hasty retreat to his car. No way would he find any other evidence. The whole scene had been trashed, first by the thieves and then the farm workers who had prevented the leakage contaminating the ditches. It was very doubtful that they would catch the thieves, and anyway, since they had made such a glorious cock-up of this job, it was doubtful they’d try that sort of theft again.
Then the thought of that syphoning hose began to bother him. Like it or not, it was evidence, and as such he should bag it and tag it and take it back with him. If they did find a suspect, a piece of hose from his garage or garden could be matched up quite easily. With a resigned sigh, Charlie got out of the car and took an evidence bag from the boot. He pulled on a pair of nitrile gloves and went back to retrieve the hosepipe. Oh well, the stink was already up his nose, what was another fifteen minutes breathing in the cloying stench of diesel?
Back at the station, Charlie told Jackman about the bodged job at Dewsbury End Farm. ‘I’ve suggested security cameras, sir. If they’d had them last night, I’m pretty certain they would have got some interesting pictures, probably like something from a Laurel and Hardy film.’
Jackman listened, frowning. ‘What is it with all these petty crimes being carried out by blundering amateurs?’ The frown deepened. ‘Kids?’
‘Or maybe a gang of wannabe crooks, learning the ropes the hard way?’ Charlie suggested. ‘Whatever, they made a right dog’s dinner of this little caper.’
‘Red diesel, you say?’ asked Jackman thoughtfully. ‘Would they dare use it in a road vehicle, I wonder? If they got pulled over, they’d get their collars felt for that.’
‘I checked it out, sir. They could have their vehicle seized and they’d have to pay a fee for its release, plus the duty owed.’
‘And if we proved they nicked it, a fine and a prison sentence of up to two years. Hardly worth it, is it?’ Jackman added.
‘It can be used for machinery, as well as tractors and diggers and the like, so maybe they live on a farm?’ Charlie suggested.
‘Good point. Bear that in mind if we get anything else along these lines.’ The boss grinned at him. ‘And by the way, Charlie — you stink!’
‘Thanks for that, sir. I had noticed.’ ***
As soon as everyone was back at base, Jackman called the team together to tell them what they knew about the gun theft. This was an unofficial “campfire” discussion so they gathered in his office.
There they all were — Marie, Robbie and Charlie, along with PC Gary Pritchard and DC Rosie Cohen. He smiled to himself. He still wanted to call her Rosie McElderry and he struggled to get his head around the fact that the young detective was now married to the one absent member of his team, Max Cohen. Max and Rosie were taking responsibility for their baby twins seriously and so far, had just about managed to juggle their shifts, leave and days off satisfactorily. It was an arrangement full of compromises. Both were dedicated police officers and neither wanted a lesser role in the team, but their children came first and somehow, with the help of their combined families, they had made it work.
‘I hate to feel perplexed by the small stuff,’ Jackman grumbled, ‘and right now I can’t help worrying about the theft of those guns. It’s just not straightforward.’
‘Me too,’ Robbie said, ‘over six bloody pigs.’
‘And I still can’t stop thinking about Kenneth Harcourt’s manner when I asked him how many guns he owned. Stupid, but it’s doing my head in. Oh, sorry, sir.’ Marie pulled her phone from her pocket and stared at it. ‘A text. Can I check it, boss?’
Jackman nodded, still wondering if he were making something out of nothing.
Marie’s voice shook. He took the phone from her outstretched hand and looked at the message: Forever in my thoughts.
He stared at the attached photograph. His mouth went dry. It was a shot of himself with Marie at his side, on the steps of the police station.
He closed his eyes for a second.
‘Alistair Ashcroft?’ asked Robbie softly. ‘That is his favourite method of communicating, isn’t it?’
Jackman looked at Marie, and they nodded. They had known he would be back, but receiving actual confirmation made Jackman’s blood turn to ice.
‘He was here, right here, outside the station, watching us,’ Marie whispered.
‘CCTV?’ asked Charlie immediately.
Jackman stared at the picture. From what they were wearing, it was taken some time ago. ‘I’m thinking this was taken maybe eight or ten weeks ago. We only keep the footage for twenty-eight days. I’m afraid he’s cleverer than that, Charlie.’
Marie had begun to pace around, ‘Why haven’t we had a single sighting of him if he’s been hanging around for months? He’s never been shy of smiling for the camera. Uniform have his face etched into their memory banks, but no one has seen hide nor hair of him.’ She glared at Jackman, her expression a mix of anger and trepidation. ‘We are in his sights again, aren’t we?’
With a calmness he didn’t feel, Jackman said, ‘We were never out of them.’
Alistair Ashcroft had always professed to be a patient man. He had taken that photograph but waited two months before showing his hand. Jackman wondered how long he had been watching them from the shadows and why he had chosen this particular moment to bring himself to their attention.
‘I guess checking out the sender’s phone will be a complete waste of time, but I suppose I should do it anyway,’ said Robbie. He held out his hand to Marie, who handed him her mobile.
‘As you say, it will be pointless, but nevertheless . . .’ Marie flopped down into a chair and watched Robbie leave the room. ‘Here we go again. Cat-and-mouse games.’
She was right. Privately Jackman wondered at the man’s audacity in walking among them unnoticed. Now they were all in a state of high alert, but Ashcroft would have known this when he sent the photograph. He could well melt away again for another month, leaving them to stew. Ashcroft might have the patience of Job, but Jackman did not.
‘What more can we do to find him?’ asked Gary helplessly. ‘I’m no pessimist but it seems to me that we’ve exhausted every avenue. We’ve had the whole town looking out for him for months, resulting in sweet Fanny Adams.’
‘I hate to say it,’ chipped in Rosie, ‘but unless we get a stroke of good fortune — which is very unlikely — we are going to have to let him make the first move.’
‘Which could mean someone losing their life,’ Jackman concluded. ‘Not an option.’
He had to act. It was time they got out on the streets themselves. Someone out there knew something about Ashcroft. Maybe that person was hiding him. He knew he might be making the team into sitting targets, but that was a risk they were going to have to take. ‘Look, guys, I can’t dither around waiting for the hammer to fall. Let’s tie up these annoying petty crimes and get out there ourselves.’ He turned his attention to Rosie. ‘With the exception of you, Flower. I want you to run the show from here.’
Rosie opened her mouth to protest, but then closed it again. She had two new lives to consider. Her priorities had to be different now, and Jackman recognised that. ‘I know it’s not what you want to hear, but I need a solid anchor in the office, collating and chasing up anything and everything that we might uncover, no matter how small. You can do that standing on your head — and bloody well.’
‘You don’t have to over-egg the pudding, boss. I get the drift.’ Rosie pulled a face. ‘But don’t forget I’m still a police officer, not just a new mum. We all have to face danger every day that we show up for work. Both Max and I are fully aware of that.’
‘So am I, Rosie, but can we run with this for a while? I won’t wrap you in cotton wool, I promise, but right now I’d like to know the ship is in safe hands while I’m running around like a headless chicken, okay?’
Her expression softened. ‘You’re the boss, sir. But somehow I can’t see you doing the chicken bit, you’re far too organised.’
He wished he felt organised. Right now he had no idea where to start.
‘What about the gun theft?’ asked Marie. ‘Life goes on, even if Ashcroft has started playing silly buggers again.’
He was pleased to hear a little of the old Marie. Receiving that text must have been one huge shock. ‘You and I will get straight onto that, although by now those guns are probably long gone from the county.’ He glanced at Charlie. ‘Get the report done on your oil spill and pass it down the line. We have more important things to worry about than idiots nicking diesel and trying to ruin the ecology of Dewsbury End Farm.’
He looked up as a glum Robbie came back in.
‘As we guessed, unregistered phone and sim. Ron in IT said he reckoned it was a proper burner phone — bought anonymously, used once, wiped free of prints and then thrown away.’ He handed Marie back her mobile. ‘End of story.’
‘Okay, Robbie. No more than we expected. I was just saying that we’ll tie up all the loose ends and go hunting. So can you sort out the paperwork on your piggy thefts, then report to me, okay?’ Jackman looked at the worried faces surrounding him. ‘Think of it this way. This is day one of the investigation that will see an end to Alistair Ashcroft, so cheer up and let’s get on with what we do best. He won’t win. He’s had his moment of glory, but it won’t happen again. This time we bring him down.’
It wasn’t exactly a rallying cry, but he did see determination on the faces of his team. It would do for now.